Sunday, 11 September 2011

Global Commission on Drugs, don't let this fade away (Posted in June, moved from my old blog).

As the dust settles on the "coming out" of the former world leaders who make up the Commission ( it is interesting to feel the pulse of some of the world's media in relation to the idea that the drugs war has not just been lost but has made things worse, as well as the proposal that a sensible debate on regulation of drugs like cannabis is the best way forward.

If the idea has been overwhelmingly welcomed by civil society and professionals in the drugs and drug policy field, it has predictably been rejected by most governments, like the US, Russia, and other nations that have essentialy military/ideological approaches to mass sociological problems like drugs.The UK and other governments had their rejection ready but there was good coverage in most of the media in Europe. 
Some of the official reactions are almost comical. Apart from the old favourite about "sending the wrong message" there ist the World Federation against Drugs. Have a look at their website. Its headlines are an emotional rant aimed at discrediting individuals ("Russian Drugs Tsar Viktor Ivanov accused Koffi Annan of lobbying on behalf of drug traffickers"). The Russian Federal anti drugs service is a notoriously corrupt and ineffectual body, while Russia itself has a huge drugs problem that it is failing to deal with. The site goes on to name the "legalisers" and "harm producers" behind the report, which looks like a Who'sWho for evidence-based policies; surely an unintended consequence. 

Mr Ivanov was also active at Deauville, where the G8 recently looked at this (Why the G8?). He stated that we should be aware that this is "a public relations campaign in favour of drugs linked to the huge revenues they generate". He also called for a Russo-European agency to eliminate drugs in ..... Afghanistan. The French government has a way of pretending to go along with this type of initiative because it gives them international visibility but it rarely leads to much (who knows what results the 2010 Hortefeux Pact against Drugs in West Africa produced?). François Hollande on the other hand, potential socialist candidate for the presidential elections, calls for a commission at European level to look at treatment and decriminalisation of cannabis. Let's see if he remembers if he wins. And let's hope that the European Commission is listening and will anticipate the need to support such an initiative and channel it away from ideologically induced platitudes in order to obtain EU consensus. 

Freek Polak of ENCOD gave a particularly clear and helpful interview on Dutch radio. That is now more important than it used to be as the Dutch are becoming wobbly on drug policy and are in denial about the reasons why home-grown organised crime has got into the home-grown cannabis trade, but that is another subject.. 

Ruth Dreifuss, former President of Switzerland - and member of the Global Commission - is on record as saying "I have high expectation of European action on this. Europe must put public health at the centre of the drugs problem." 

As the old joke goes in Brussels: maybe the EU should apply for membership of the Swiss Confederation. 

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Counting the cost of bad politics (published earlier on opiumwars blog)

The Netherlands have been a byword for tolerant and realistic drug policies for years. It took some courage to do that because it provokes some pretty rough criticism from its partners in Europe and around the world.
The Dutch system effectively suspends its own drug law (drugs remain technically illiegal) and tolerates both drug use and the sale of cannabis in a regulated way through the "coffeeshops". These are regulated, legal (and taxed). Their supply is not. When the system started decades ago the "back door" was supplied by green-fingered "hippy" types and other amateurs. Now that cannabis has become a mainstream consumer product in much of the world - although production remains illegale - organised crime has stepped in.
It is a good illustration of the point I made in my post of 4 April (Power sharing with the Mafia). There is no easy option for weak politicians: all-out prohibition doesn't work (anywhere in the world) nor does the half-hearted tolerance policy of the Dutch (and, incidentally, quite a few other European countries).
As demand for cannabis grew in Holland - boosted by drugs tourism from neighboring countries - the volume of the  cannabis trade overtook heroin and cocaine somewhere around 1995 and is still expanding. The police has responded by creating special teams, sentencing is now tougher, but the profits to be made are totally irrisistable and the business plan of a serious canabis producer includes prison as a calculated risk and lethal violence as an essential management technique. Take a look at the fundamentals: a 1000-plant cannabis plantation with grow lights and automatic irrigation yields up to five harvests a year worth 700.000 EURO. The electricity and water are free because they are illegally tapped from the public networks.
What does this lead to? An unprecedented growth in organised violent crime in a country that has a firmly non-violent tradition. Drive-by shootings, public assassinations in bars and people's homes. Although much of this is gang warfare, the degree of intimidation of private citizens who are "pursuaded" to make a room, garage or cellar available to the growers is such that they rarely go to the police to complain. One mayor of a Dutch town is in hiding under police protection. Dutch police claim they destroy 6000 plantations a year or 2,5 million plants (one plant produces app. 40 grams). And yet, cannabis production is not thought to have decreased significantly.The market however is becoming more violent every year.
The problem has now spread over the border into Belgium, which has a weaker police system than Holland and less experience with the drugs trade. Belgian police recently claimed that more tha, 90% of plantations discovered were linked to Dutch organised crime. A Belgian criminologist, Prof. Decorte, describes the (Dutch) police tactics as "hit and run" raids on plantations, but which do no significant harm to the organisations behind the trade itself. Going for the top criminals would take resources that are simply not available and are likely to remain so for years to come. Meanwhile, others are moving into the business. Turkish, Bulgarian and Moroccan networks are increasingly active, to say nothing of the Vietnamese, already dominating the Canadian market and expanding rapidly in the UK.
How long will it take for our feeble and election-hungry politicians to take their eyes off the economy and to recognise that the bells are tolling for traditional prohibition of drugs and for the UN Conventions on drugs, at least in their present form. If they persist in "fighting" rather than regulating and reducing the side effects, we should expect a gradual slide into a form of society in which organised crime plays a major part in mainstream politics and in ordinary people's lives. Try to explain that to your children.

No drug policy please, we're politicians.

In a recent book by John Dower called "Cultures of war" there are some useful pointers to what makes the war on drugs such a dead-end and self-defeating exercise.

What makes Iraq and Afghanistan different from the (successful) turnarounds of Japan and Germany after 1945 is the fact that the occupation and subsequent régime change had been prepared years in advance by people who understood the situation on the ground and believed in the power of the state to bring about that change. Many mistakes were made but it basically worked.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, as in the war on drugs, we see the sort of  thinking that is making the institutions (and  bank accounts) of the world sag under the weight of the fact-free polices of the Victorian poor house: you shall suffer for your own good (budget cuts if you're lucky, shock and awe if you're not, prison if you're caught in possession again), and the future is nobody's business for God shall provide. And while we wait for that we shall build prisons and apply the Patriot Act.

The war on drugs - in which I include the less spectacular excesses of European politicians and judiciaries - is like the great wars of the 20th century in that it pushes civilised nations into a frenzied suspension of values.  Generations that grew up after the war were never taught to question the slaughter of civilians on an industrial scale, at least not of German or Japanese vivilians. The last upsurge of independent thought that Western societies have known were the events of 1968. They died down and were smothered in the materialism of the market economy that eventually overcame all other ideologies.

And so it goes with drug policies. Independent, critical analysis is a rare thing either among politicians or the media, although both claim the contrary. The political ineptitude and bureaucratic sloth that increasingly surrounds us in Europe and the US is a formidable obstacle to the development of drug policies for tomorrow.

There are rays of hope though. The Global Commission on Drug Policies is one. It is made up of leading ex-politicians who still have credit, but not for ever. They have addressed their report to the UN earlier this year, calling for a change of direction. We are still waiting for a similar approach to be made to the EU.


The March of Folly Revisited

In 1981, the American historian Barbara Tuchman wrote in The March of Folly:"Mankind, it seems, makes a poorer performance of government than of almost any other activity...Why do holders of high office so often act contrary to the way reason points and elightened self-interest suggests? Why does intelligent mental process seem so often not to function?" 
The question is as relevant today as it was then, or during the gaffes of the civilisations that she described, from Troy to Vietnam.
One issue to which her question applies directly is the global narcotics control system. A construct which reflects mainly American prejudice about alien customs and fear of losing social control, and which was embedded into the UN system of drug conventions between 1961 and 1988. The Financial Times yesterday joined the growing chorus of serious media with a one-page spread on the situation in Latin America. Conditions in Central America are particularly dire, as drug trafficking to the US market that goes through the region has produced unprecedented and widespread violence (El Salvador is quoted as having 71 murders per 100,000, or nearly 12 times the level of the US, 35 times more than in Europe). The legalisation debate, the article claims, "is bogged down by legitimate fears about the risk of increased addiction rates". Why are these fears legitimate? In the 1950's, anti- communist paranoia was rife. It was used "legitimately" by the Federal Bureau of Narcotics to create a toxic mix of fear and xenophobia  about an international drugs conspiracy to undermine the free world. The rest is history: by 1961 the world (i.e. the West) had painted itself into a legal corner by adopting the first UN convention on illicit drugs. By 1971 Richard Nixon had called for the War on Drugs, and today we have the world's fastest growing illegal commodities market ever.
So, what about those "legitimate" fears? Just how scared do we have to be of addiction? Not half as scared as we should be of violence and the growing bonds between the legal and black economies as billions in drug money are seeping into our daily lives. Does your town or city have no-go areas? Mine does, and the fact that drugs are illicit gives the local tough guys their "respect" and their currency.  Regulating drugs would not turn these people into honest citizens, but it would take a form of crime out of circulation that is so easy I'm almost tempted myself. It would also free up a lot of cash for prevention and treatment that is now being spent on rather unsuccessful law enforcement. Prof Kleinman from UCLA may claim that the former is "cost-effective but not very effective", at least it is not a ruinous and murderous joke like much of the law enforcement efforts over the last decades.
The fear is not "legitimate". It is understandable, which is entirely different. It is understandable because self-serving politicians have played on it for so long - assisted by sensational media - that the mere suggestion of doing this differently provokes outbursts of righteous anger, particularly from "people with children", who somehow have the moral high ground in this debate. What about children with parents in prison, usually poor, serving inhumanely long sentences for posession or small scale retail trafficking? What about children living in prison, as they do in some Latin American countries? What if your adolescent child gets a taste of tough drug laws, looses his place at school, his bright future suddenly cancelled? 
The fear can be addressed and the options for regulating the drugs market explained. However distatsteful the idea is to most of us, regulating drugs is being discussed by many serious people in civil society, universities, and unexpected places like the House of Lords. A lot of work has been done on it, the complexity and risks of the idea are fairly well known. What is lacking is a political class that does more than follow its most rabid electorates in stead of showing a statesman-like way out of the present mess.
Let me end with Barbara Tuchman again. To qualify as political folly, she wrote, the policy must have been recognised as counter-productive in its own time, and, secondly, an alternative policy must have been available. 
Good night and good luck.

Power sharing with the Mafia - Western democracies and drugs control

From a legal and political point of view there can be little doubt that the EU and some of its friends have been defecting by stealth from the UN drug conventions for years, thereby creating what is probably one of the most civilised models of drug control in the world.Europe gets away with this because it is one of the UN’s principal bankers. The approach is also symptomatic of the way in which the EU deals with big issues: it compromises until things get too hot, and the really big issue of the day is the economy, not drugs. Nor is drugs policy in any way prominent in the Lisbon Treaty. The EU’s attitude (shared by a number of other Western societies) also reflects the growing realisation that the UN Drug Conventions seemed like a good thing at the time, but that times have changed. At a more fundamental level there is also simply a clear if unspoken consensus that a full-blooded implementation of the Conventions in the EU is socially and politically unacceptable. This is the principal reason why European politicians and civil servants, both in their capitals and in Brussels, share a rare community of purpose on drug policies: “don’t rock the boat”.
 The fact that (most of)Europehas effectively demilitarized since the fall of communism is hardly a secret. To most European governments security has moved beyond the logic of keeping large armies. What is less clear though is whether Europe today has the capacity in terms of law enforcement to protect itself against global organised crime in general, and against the way in which organised crime feeds off inconsistent drug policies in particular. The question is relevant because drug consumption, particularly of cannabis, has become a mainstream phenomenon in Europe (lifetime prevalence estimated at around 75 million people) and has proven to be virtually immune to public policy efforts to control, let alone eradicate, it.

 The existence of this consumer market has created a political and legal no-man’s land: governments - which are bound by the UN Conventions and their own drug laws - will not and cannot supply drugs to consumers other than through medical treatment schemes. Those who don’t qualify for these schemes – the vast majority of users - will simply have to find the nearest criminal for their supply. In other words, governments have in effect outsourced a major element of social and economic control over society to the very people they claim they want to bring to justice.  

 For a European Union that preaches sound governance and the rule of law to the world  this must become a problem sooner or later. Moreover, the EU’s “balanced approach” (i.e. balanced between reducing the demand and supply of drugs) is aptly named in as much as it achieves neither. In stead, it provides treatment and various harm reduction interventions on the demand side but goes no further, while on the supply side it is hopelessly ineffective and outclassed by organised crime. Perhaps the latter is just as well, because if law enforcement were to be really effective and the supply of drugs were to run dry, who knows what the impact would be on the stability of our societies in terms of health and public order.
There is little danger of a resounding law enforcement success however. So far - political rhetoric notwithstanding - the EU and most of its Member States have failed to take the necessary steps to make adequate resources available to deal with organised crime on a scale that would seriously affect it. The EU has innumerable national law enforcement agencies, some of which do not even coordinate at national, let alone EU level. The agencies that have been set up at EU level, like Europol and Eurojust, are mired in political infighting and paralysing bureaucracy. All this makes Europeone of organised crime’s favorite destinations in the developed world. This is certainly the view held by senior prosecutors, like Italy’s Piero Grasso or Spain’s Jose Ramon Norena Salto, speaking at a security briefing to the European Parliament last January.
The start-up capital of organised crime often comes from drugs, which as a commodity is easy to handle and, as we know, yields spectacular profits. In some EU countries, corruption is already in the bloodstream of public administration and indeed government. The situation in candidate countries is worse. But let us not always point the finger at the usual suspects: it is highly unlikely that west European ports should have become major international distribution hubs for illicit drugs without at least some local assistance. Opaque local rules on banking and taxation do the rest.
 The degree of infiltration of the legal economy by the black economy is by its very nature hard to estimate. In Europe figures of up to 20% are mentioned, depending on country and author. The UN estimates that the proceeds from crime that enter the legal economy every year represent between 2% and 5% of global GDP. Once a particular sector of the legal economy is penetrated the logic of money laundering literally swallows up the competition and entire sectors of the economy – and government - fall into criminal hands.
The real dilemma for EU governments is therefore how to preserve their global political position, real or perceived (i.e. by voting with the US to maintain the UN drug conventions in their present form)  while at the same time preserving their legitimacy at home in spite of the role they have given to organised crime in managing the drugs market).
Next steps - the case for amending the conventions
Given the dilemma our governments are in, beating up Bolivia in New York and paying it off with economic assistance that it cannot refuse was clearly the easiest option. In any case, it was clear once again at last month's CND in Vienna that European unity on reforming drug policy remains elusive.
It is much easier to leave laws in place than to get rid of them. Bad laws however undermine the rule of law. The European Union is a unique political construct based very firmly on the rule of law. It cannot afford to discredit the legitimacy that it has struggled to build up over more than 50 years. It should therefore be aware of the fact if laws on drugs are made irrelevant by consistently countervailing practice by governments and citizens alike there is no guarantee that other laws might not be equally ignored one day. Place this in the context of the interpenetration between the legal and illegal economies that is taking place on the back of the illicit drug trade and you begin to see the potential for the unraveling of a society based on the rule of law. I believe that this is both a good reason and a starting point for reviewing the UN drug conventions in the light of the lessons learnt since 1961, without getting into the usual legalisation vs. prohibition debate.

The next question of course is how this is to be done, or rather by whom? I am quite sure that it cannot be done without the consent and even leadership of theUS.Americain effect created the current system, and the liveliest debate on changing it is going on there. The EU may have the right kind of experience in humane drug policies but too many of its national governments depend on right-wing electorates at the moment and are unlikely to want to rock the boat by engaging in a fundamental debate on this unless they are firmly encouraged.
What may help both the USand the EU is the growing opposition in Latin Americato the excesses inherent in the system and the recent launch of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, which was inspired by the Latin American Commission convened by former presidents Cardoso of Brazil, Gaviria of Colombia and Zedillo of Mexico in 2009. 

The first practical step would be for the US, the Latin Americans, and the EU to get together. All they have to agree on at this stage is to have a real and open debate about the conventions and the institutional machinery that has to implement them rather than the charades that we have witnessed in the CND in recent years. Such a debate should look at the facts only, and steer well clear of the moral fundamentalisms, be they “for” or “against” that have dominated this discussion for a century.
It is crucial that subsequent steps should not be prejudged at this stage. They should emerge from the debate and be in keeping with social and political reality and, to quote the 1961 Convention, with “the health and welfare of mankind”. To do this, our governments may have to take difficult decisions. That is why we voted for them.

Carel Edwards
The author is the former Head of the Drugs Policy Coordination Unit at the European Commission and a member of the advisory council of LEAP.
Brussels, 4 April 2011